Nellie Zabel Willhite, an aviation pioneer



Mike’s had a passion for aviation since he was eight.  It’s something he shared with his father, who, in the Army Aircorps, worked as an airplane mechanic.  A few years ago, Mike fulfilled a lifelong dream and got his private pilot’s license.  No matter where we are, if there’s something aviation-related around – a museum, an airport, a meetup group – we don’t miss checking it out.

While we were in Rapid City for work, we stopped at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum on Ellsworth Air Force Base.  There are retired military planes and helicopters outside, with a couple of smaller aircraft inside along with a variety of exhibits.  Admission to the museum is free. The 50-minute, air conditioned bus tour of the base costs $8 and includes descending into a Minuteman II missile silo.  We didn’t have time for it on this visit, but we plan to do it when we come back for work next year.

My favorite part of our visit was learning about Nellie Zabel Willhite.  Nellie, born in Box Elder, was the first deaf woman to become a pilot.  She was also South Dakota’s first female pilot.  She was a founding member of the famous Ninety-Nines, the group of 99 women pilots that was established in 1929.  Nellie not only got her license and had fun as a flour-bombing, balloon-racing barnstormer.  She also flew for work.  She was an airmail carrier until 1944.  As an intermittent student pilot myself, I was inspired by Nellie’s story.  A woman, a disabled woman at that, taking on – and excelling at – a risk-filled endeavor dominated by men?  Nellie was a true adventurer. I wouldn’t be surprised to find her picture in the dictionary next to the word “pioneer”.



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